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Vol. XXXI No. 16, December 1-15, 2021
The Smart Cities Mission launched by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) turned six years old in June this year. Chennai’s smart city initiative is a year younger than its contemporaries but has launched multiple projects in the city. Unfortunately, the relevance of its work has come under question and rightfully so, according to some quarters. The bone of contention lies in the choice of projects launched by the Smart Cities Mission, which many feel ignore basic, underlying civic problems in favour of blue sky solutions. Take, for example, the Pedestrian Plaza at T-Nagar, which was reportedly built at an approximate cost of Rs. 40 crores; key stretches of the locality were reportedly left inundated within an hour of the recent downpours in the city, pointing to the inefficiency of its drainage systems. Or consider the Rs. 24 lakh Namma Chennai selfie point on Marina Beach, a structure of little practical value that stands upon a key natural landmark in dire need of efficient waste management. More significantly, the Smart City Mission is conspicuously absent in times of public crisis; for instance, it has not played a consequential part in handling the covid pandemic nor has it contributed towards the prevention or alleviation of the recent floods in the city – solutions that a layman can logically expect to be made easier with technology.
The Chennai Smart City website claims to have developed its vision for the city based on “a series of discussions with citizens, stakeholders & elected representatives overlaid on the detailed study of SWOT analysis of the city.” However, a recent study by the NGO Information and Resource Centre for Deprived Urban Communities (IRCDUC) has concluded that the city’s smart projects bring little benefit to the urban poor. Quoting from the study, “Of the 37 completed projects in Chennai, only seven had a direct impact on the vulnerable sections of society. In terms of funds, of the Rs. 184.2 crore spent, only Rs. 3.9 crore was for the benefit of the poor and only Rs. 77 lakh was directly spent for low-income settlements.” The study gave the example of Kannagi Nagar to illustrate its point – an art village was set up in the locality under the aegis of Smart City and the GCC, but little was done to address the lack of access to basic amenities such as anganwadi centres or the quality of water available in the area.
The problem is that there seems to be little clarity on what a smart solution brings to the table that isn’t already within the purview of local administrative bodies. The ambiguity of the Smart Cities Mission is perhaps best captured by its own words – its stated objective is to “promote sustainable and inclusive cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘Smart’ Solutions.” These are ideals that can potentially fit almost any civic department serving the city. And so, when significant parts of T-Nagar find themselves flooded from the rains, who should the public hold accountable? The GCC which has a team handling storm water drainage or the Smart City team which has taken on the mission of ‘connecting missing links in storm water drains?’ Transparency into Smart City’s functioning and its measurable goals would have helped concretise its roles and responsibilities; unfortunately, there’s little available by way of project analysis and case studies pertaining to the city. As it stands, a ‘smart’ project has largely come to evoke broad themes of innovation and technology but little understanding of practical impact.
The fact is that the core idea of a ‘smart city’ is a powerful one – it is undeniable that judicious use of technology in public administration can make a big difference to the lives of people living in the city. Smart City’s own Namma Chennai app is a great example; it simplifies the process of lodging a complaint and most citizens report speedy resolutions to problems reported through the app. It is worthwhile to note that it works precisely because it is a decentralised solution that allows the relevant administrative bodies to respond more easily to public grievances. This is what Chennai needs more of – a system that builds greater ease of work, transparency and accountability for local executive bodies. After all, not only are they the ones who keep the city running, but they are also our first line of defence against a crisis, as recent events have shown. And what better tool to create such a system with than technology? Perhaps the Smart Cities Mission should consider re-assessing the role it plays – one suspects that it has the potential to do greater good as a facilitator of local administration than as an executor.